Organisational Development: more of an art than a science?

30 March 2016
SERIES Rethinking organisational development 20 items

Think tank managers are often thinking about how they might change or improve their organisation by bringing in the help of a consultant with expertise in Organisational Development (OD). But is this always the best solution? In this article I discuss a number of assumptions about organisational development that need to be reassessed and suggest practical recommendations for think tank leaders to take.

OD: several fields with some common assumptions

As fellow RAPIDer Jessica Mackenzie says in her paper, the Organisational Development field is very broad, drawing on concepts from a range of areas including: systems theory, psychoanalytical theory, psychodynamic theory, action research, group dynamics, change theories and appreciative inquiry amongst others.

However, scholars and practitioners operating in these fields, seem united by the following (often implicit) assumptions:

  • An organisation can be thought of as a whole or a system made up of different components
  • Organisations go through periods of stability and then change
  • An OD practitioner – a neutral observer – can be brought in by the management of an organisation, and like a doctor, make a diagnosis which can, through the use of tools, instruments and frameworks support senior management (leaders in particular) to develop and implement ‘evidence-based’ solutions to bring the organisation back to good health or more in line with the changed environment

In an environment where there are more and more people posing as OD consultants, they are under pressure to say they can bring about “increased organisational effectiveness and efficiency”. But this is really difficult.

By drawing on insights from the complexity sciences and inspired by critical thinkers, including Ralph Stacey, Haridimos Tsoukas and Chris Mowles (particularly his book – rethinking management), as well my own work collaborating with staff from research centres in Africa and Asia to help them have more policy impact, especially in Vietnam, I explain why.

The ‘organisation’ as an abstract concept

Those wanting to bring about change are often advised to work at the ‘organisational’ level. An organisation is thought of as a whole coherent body with a boundary around it made up of parts.

However, this is rarely the case, especially in relation to ‘organisations’ with a large number of employees. Rather, they emerge from the activities of individuals often working with one another in formal and informal groups and networks with the aim of ‘getting things done’.  So if the ‘organisation’ doesn’t exist as one coherent body, trying to, for instance, improve systems and processes at the ‘organisational’  level will prove challenging.

The uncertain and continual nature of change

The dominant discourse around managing OD is premised on assumptions of predictability and control, and linear ‘if-then’ cause and effect. These assumptions are rooted in concepts brought over from the natural sciences, reinforcing an idea of OD as a science. However, change is rarely a result of something that is designed and led by senior managers and consultants. And rather than organisations transitioning from a one static state to another through a process of change, change is happening all the time in all parts of an organisation, where diverse employees (with different strengths, inspirations and struggles) are trying to do their best to ‘get things done’. As they do so, they see relationships between themselves wax and wane, strengthen and weaken which in turn informs the kinds of things they do together (or not). The result is a pattern of interactions between employees where no one is in overall control.

What emerges from an OD “project’ will be unpredictable, resulting in good and bad outcomes, whilst significant improvements may well arise from small improvised ‘interventions’ rather than through large pre-planned ones.

Little robust evidence to support the effectiveness of orthodox OD approaches

The conventional OD literature suggests we apply OD approaches that are proven to work. However, there is little or no reliable evidence for many of the prescriptions (such as visioning, strategic planning processes, quality management systems, and the use of performance management frameworks) offered by conventional OD literature. In a paper by Trish Reay, Whitney Berta, and Melanie Kazman Kohn asking “What’s the evidence for evidence based management?” they found that the majority of articles pointing to the importance of evidence based management (or what we’re calling organisational development) were based on opinion and anecdotal information.

Leaders are only one of many actors and influences in an organisation

John Kotter’s 8 step process is illustrative of much of the advice targeting leaders that provides a formula for bringing about organisational development. However, in their 2010 Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice, Nitin Nohria and Rakesh Khurana say that the leadership literature cites “casual” and sometimes “self-serving” evidence. They argue that there are weak causal links between what leaders do and organisational performance. Despite this lack of evidence, Chris Mowles suggests that “there are a handful of scholars who have remained convinced of the importance of leaders to organisations, and a huge plethora of more popular literature, particularly written by consultants and ex-Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) wishing to cash in on their success.”

Although leaders can and do have an effect on what happens in organisations because of the power and influence they have over what gets done and how, this is by no means the only factor which determines what occurs and what does not. The myriad relationships people have with one another influence their ability to conceive of, understand, design, discuss, adopt and adapt new practices.

Change is always political and potentially difficult

If an organisation arises out of a web of overlapping relationships where individuals are engaging with one another, bringing about change will often mean altering the pattern of those relationships. Formal and informal groups of employees will often protect and/or promote the nature of their relationships with one another through competitive and collaborative behaviour. So, changing the nature of people’s relationships will require potentially difficult negotiations, and will often involve struggle and conflict.

The marginal role of consultants

A consultant brought in to promote organisational development, can be neither objective nor detached from an organisation. They will be constrained by the politics of an organisation (just as anyone else is who works there) and will likely have to conform to the client’s expectations about the way they work. A consultant does not have any special power to change the ‘system’ as a whole – they are merely a participant in the OD process – albeit a temporary one.  And they are often brought in to give weight to the work of senior managers by adding expertise or experience from elsewhere.

So what are think tank leaders and managers to do?

If the future is unpredictable, the implication is that no one really knows what a ‘successful’ course of action looks like before people act. So what does this mean for think tank managers and leaders who want to improve practice, be it the way in which funding is sought, how research is conducted, how they engage with stakeholders and/or how they manage their organisations?

1. Take a more critical approach to managing change

This does not mean that managers should stop trying to plan and lead. But these ought to be done more critically, questioning how these are done and to what end. By planning and executing a change process, managers may well inadvertently stifle the very creativity and innovative practice they want their employees to produce.

2. Act first then think

Instead, I suggest the importance of getting groups or networks of employees to think and reflect through deliberative dialogue. And rather than starting with an idealised end point or an abstract plan of the future (which might be couched in terms of better systems, structures and cultures or improved effectiveness and efficiency of employees, teams and the organisation) and then working logically back from there; starting with an understanding of how employees are working together, the ‘here and now’, what employees are grappling with in their daily work and the dilemmas they are facing is likely to be more fruitful.

3. Broker and facilitate deliberative dialogue

Managers and leaders then, can play a key role in facilitating and brokering discussions amongst different employees to reflect on what they are doing. Through reflection and paying greater attention to the experience of how employees work together, they can discover different and possibly better ways of working together and getting things done.

Where the organisation is made up of several different groups, they will need to be brought together to engage in dialogue through a sensitive form of brokering to discuss what is happening (or not) and come to some sort of consensus about the nature of difficulties being experienced. There may well be a lot of disagreement about the nature of the problems being experienced potentially leading to finger pointing, blame and fall out, before people are willing to ‘let go’, discuss constructively and compromise.

4. Bring all types of staff into the conversation

Employees of all types have a role to play. Middle managers can explore what is actually happening in their organisation – investigating the complexity they are part of. Although as we’ve said, senior management can’t control employee behaviour, they are influential, so, if they are not involved from the beginning, bringing them into the discussion early to sensitise them about the problems can be helpful. And thinking, reflecting and critiquing is not only the preserve of ‘programme’, ‘research’, or managerial staff but also so-called ‘support’ staff – administrators, project officers, human resource, finance and operations staff – without whom ‘organisations’ simply wouldn’t function.

5. Suggest consultants play the role of a counsellor

Rather than feeling compelled to provide advice, consultants, if they are brought in, might be better off asking questions of employees and getting them to acknowledge what they do and how they work with colleagues to get things done – both in the past and in the present. Listening to employee’s accounts (including that of leaders and managers) of what they do and the difficulties they face through say, storytelling, can be a very useful way of understanding and influencing how people think and act.

6. Nurture communities of practice

OD solutions often focus on improving individual competencies at one end of the spectrum and fixing organisation wide systems and structures at the other. However, given the important role of groups and networks, a better way to improve practice may be to work with groups of employees who are committed to improving their work, to practice what they are doing, but more skilfully and creatively. Rather like a jazz band practising on a regular basis, the group can become better at improvising and responding to different circumstances in order to amplify good practice and eliminate the bad (albeit constrained by politics and relations of power).